Palestinian guards stand outside late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in 2004. News today confirmed that Arafat died of poisoning. (Image Source: Reuters)
Today, Swiss scientists and the widow of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat confirmed what was previously hinted at in recent years regarding his death: That he was poisoned. Scientists discovered an incredible amount of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in Arafat's remains, at least 18 times the normal amount found in humans. The use of poisoning suggests that Israelis, who had surrounded Arafat's compound in the closing days of his life due to the Second Intifada, poisoned him to break the will of the Palestinians. However, the use of polonium as the poison, as well as some odd circumstances surrounding the investigation and prior history, suggest a completely different culprit all together: Russia, who previously served as Arafat's ally in the Cold War.
The use of polonium is critical in Yasser Arafat's poisoning, because it is quick-acting, but hard to detect until after the fact. The poison gives off flu-like symptoms initially, but can kill quickly. Polonium was previously used in one other poisoning case in the last decade: Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who was poisoned in London after defecting from Russian intelligence in 2006. The Russian government has repeatedly prevented a full-scale investigation into Litvinenko's death, which many suspect was an assassination conducted by the country's security service, FSB.
To make things more interesting, the Russian government, which also worked to investigate Arafat's death with Swiss and French scientists, initially refuted the Swiss claim in October that there was evidence of polonium in the Palestinian leader's remains and belongings. The agency responsible for the investigation quickly retracted the statement, claiming instead that they simply handed their results to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Such maneuvers are puzzling, unless the initial statement was also intended to deny a claim of having any involvement in Arafat's death, given the Litvinenko poisoning.
Of course, the two questions that come out of this is, how could Arafat be poisoned by the Russians when he was surrounded by Israelis, and why would he be poisoned by the Russians? The first answer dates to the Cold War era: The Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Arafat since the 1960s, long received backing by the Soviet Union. The Soviets saw the PLO as their primary agent of influence in the Middle East following the Six-Day War. Some have argued that Gorbachev considered Arafat his insurance policy against the United States in the event the Soviet Union collapsed. That relationship continued into the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, but in a much more strained manner. Odds are, one of Arafat's entourage received the polonium from Russian envoys, perhaps inadvertently.
The question of why the Russians would poison Arafat is a bit more complex, but it may be due to what happened after the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia veered away from the PLO and its leading Fatah faction, favoring actual nation and long-time ally Syria instead. Syria houses and actively supports anti-Israeli terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas (the latter up until the recent Civil War). As Arafat moved toward peace in the 1990s with the Oslo Accords and the Camp David negotiations, the Russians, who were no doubt still looking to undermine American interests, saw him becoming unreliable. So the Russians likely started indirectly supporting Hamas through Syria instead, knowing they would continue fighting Israel.
However, Hamas would not fight the PLO and Fatah, at least openly, while Arafat was alive, as he was still extremely popular at the time of his death. As the Second, or al-Aqsa, Intifada was winding down at the time of Arafat's death, it seemed likely that Arafat would either surrender to Israelis, or reopen negotiations to the peace process, thus reducing the Russians' ability to greatly influence Middle Eastern politics and thus American entrenched interests. The Russians had a lot more to lose than the Israelis in this situation. So, the Russians likely killed off their former pawn Arafat with poison to ensure that Israel remain in constant conflict, and that America's vigilant support of the latter would aid Russian interests. This becomes evident when President Vladimir Putin welcomed leaders of Hamas to Moscow after their election victory in 2006 in the occupied territories.
Many will argue that Israel killed off Yasser Arafat. But it seems unlikely since politically, Israel had a lot more to lose by martyring Arafat. Furthermore, given that Israeli soldiers had laid siege to Arafat's compound for some time prior to his death, it seems implausible that they would kill off Arafat with poisoning, simply because they could have overrun his compound if given enough time. Plus, poisoning is not in the Israeli repertoire of political assassinations, as their recent spate of assassinations against Hamas figures have indicated.
Still, the possibility exists that Israel still poisoned Arafat, to weaken the PLO completely and allow settlement building to go on unimpeded. Either way, though, the Russians have a very large role in Yasser Arafat's poisoning, if not the largest.